Traveling to Eating Disorder Recovery
**Content warning: This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences in recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms. Please use your discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.
Jenna is a graduate of Elon University and will soon be completing her Master’s in Medical Social Work. She has always been passionate about traveling and raising awareness for eating disorders. Jenna is an advocate for body positivity and Health At Every Size®. She runs a recovery Instagram for anyone looking for recovery support.
“Cake” was the first word I said as an infant. There are many pictures of my little face with a huge smile, covered in this sweet treat. It seems a bit ironic now that the first word I could verbalize would also become one of my biggest misunderstood fears. Early on in my life, I remember having such a love for food. I loved to eat and enjoyed the taste of food, and I never minded the feeling of being full. There was no fear connected to consuming what my body told me it needed. As I grew up in what I now know in our society as toxic diet culture, I held onto the harmful images, beliefs, and ideals that were so ingrained in those around me. There were no role models of people in larger bodies for children. Over the span of several years, these detrimental thoughts and messages broke me.
When I was 12 years old, I was officially diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa with prominent orthorexia. I was extremely resistant to treatment and terrified by the idea of anything interfering with how I had my life- and my eating disorder-set up. I was in control, and I thought I needed that control.
I attended several treatment centers for these diagnoses during my teenage years. In these centers, I had to learn that I was never in control and that my choices were only hurting me. I went from resistance to surrender. One of the really amazing things about these centers is the people sitting with you in groups or at meals. I met some of the most inspiring fighters who will always be linked to my recovery. They are the stars of the massive quilt of beautiful stories that wove itself over those years. Stories of growth, loss, relapse, hope, and pain. These centers are where my story started, but I promise you I could not let it end there.
The last treatment center I entered was located in a quiet town in Utah. Utah is about 3,000 miles from my home, friends, and family in New Jersey. I had not even adjusted to sleepovers with local friends when I found myself living with 12 strangers with little to no access to the outside world or my family.
When I left this residential treatment center, I was terrified of being in the real world and relapsing. I saw that my eating disorder stole a lot from me; it was a thief of my joy, time, and sanity. My fear came true, and I relapsed soon after returning home. I mention this not to highlight a treatment that did not stick but instead to normalize that relapse happens. No one needs to surrender to their relapse; I refused to. For the first time, I wanted recovery. When I chose recovery, it changed how I fought back. I was fighting for the first time for myself, not for anyone else, and I truly believe that is why I am here today.
Fish Eyes and Happy Cries
One of my biggest inspirations to recover was my desire to travel and volunteer. I was working with several eating disorder specialists who were overlooking my refeeding and weight gain process. Around my 16th birthday, I got the best and worst news: I had gained some weight. Everyone was so happy, and I felt very conflicted. With this promising weight gain and increased effort, I was able to go to Greece with my mother for my sweet sixteen. I had not left the United States since the start of my illness. Greece was amazing – the ocean was crystal blue, the buildings were old and breathtaking, and the beautiful culture blossomed around me. We sat down to a meal on the beach of Mykonos with the waves crashing in front of us. I was a bit anxious when my entrée came out. The server set it down, and I immediately covered my mouth. It wasn’t just a piece of fish; it was an entire fish, eyeballs and all. I looked at my mom and saw the fear in her eyes as she waited for my reaction. Unexpectedly, I let out a really big laugh. I continued to belly laugh as tears rolled down my cheeks, and I started to hear her laugh. I ate my whole meal while avoiding the eyeballs, and we even got dessert. These happy tears were the first feeling of release for me. I had worked so hard to get here and not even a fish eye would get in my way.
The Long Way Out
When people say eating disorder recovery is a lifelong process, they mean it. I learned this quickly as I transitioned from a place of precontemplation to action when it came to resisting my eating disorder urges and behaviors. I continued to fight for my recovery throughout high school. I graduated in the top ten percent of my class and walked across the graduation stage with one of my best friends. I got accepted into my top-choice college in North Carolina and majored in Psychology and Communications. During my time at this university, I had many setbacks, especially with the triggering culture of the school. It seemed like there was an unwritten requirement to be blonde, thin, and at the gym. I had to learn how to cope with outside world triggers and widespread, ingrained toxic diet culture. It took time to get to a place where I could sometimes tune out these negative ideas.
These aspects challenged my eating disorder mind and pushed me to rethink my idea of beauty. I also accomplished things I never thought I could. I got accepted into a winter program to teach English in Malawi, Africa. It was everything I always dreamed of. I also studied abroad for several months in Copenhagen, Denmark. I was able to thrive and really get to know who I was without the harsh confines of my eating disorder. I was even able to start talking about recovery and weight stability. I found a passion in raising awareness for eating disorders and educating others on their impact, treatment, and how to find hope. I graduated cum laude with my bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a sorority of friends behind me. It may have taken some time, but it truly all felt worth it to accomplish things that were never promised.
It has been over ten years since I was first diagnosed with an eating disorder. I am currently attending one of the best accredited graduate schools for social work in the nation. I have a concentration in Integrated Health Care and will graduate in April after two tedious years of work. I plan on getting a job in the mental health field and hopefully continuing to speak about my recovery and the lessons I was able to take from my battles.
If I could go back and tell myself anything, it would be: please be kind to yourself. Let yourself live, make mistakes, and feel sadness, but also dance in the sun. Your body is a shell you live in and take care of, but in no way does it define you or your worth. Lastly, take the time to appreciate the strength it took to get to where you are today. Eating disorders make us feel isolated, lonely, and secretive, with a false sense of control, and a fake happiness. They take so much and give so little. So many eating disorder symptoms and motivations can are centered in punishing oneself or someone else for words or actions. Engaging in eating disorder behaviors is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to suffer. At the end of the day, you are the one who drank the poison and got hurt.
There were so many times I was not sure I could choose life over the false control my eating disorder provided and doubted whether it would ever be worth it. Now, I am giving advice to others on how it is worth it to fight back and accomplish your dreams. I always remember and tell others who are battling this illness that it’s always darkest before the dawn. Recovery is possible for everyone.